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CLASSICAL  March 2008

CLASSICAL March 2008

Subject:

Brahms Choral Works

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Sat, 15 Mar 2008 18:41:09 -0700

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Johannes Brahms
Choral Works

*  Schicksalslied, op. 54
*  Alto Rhapsody, op. 53
*  Begraebnisgesang, op. 13
*  Naenie, op. 82
*  Gesang der Parzen, op. 89
*  2 Motets, op. 29*
*  2 Motets, op. 74**
*  3 Motets, op. 110**
*  Geistliches Lied, op. 30**
*  Rinaldo, op. 50^

Jard van Nes, contralto
San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Herbert Blomstedt
*Choir of King's College, Cambridge/Stephen Cleobury
**New English Singers/Simon Preston
^James King, tenor
Ambrosian Chorus, New Philharmonia Orchestra/Claudio Abbado
Musical Heritage Society MHS 5249716 Total time: 74:50 + 70:18 (2 CDs)
Available at www.musicalheritage.com

Summary for the Busy Executive: Generous.

One of Brahms's earliest musical jobs (besides playing piano in whorehouses)
was directing a choral society.  This introduced him to the music of the
Renaissance and the Baroque, which sparked his antiquarian enthusiasms,
in particular his first-hand encounters with the choral music of Bach.
Choral music became an important part of Brahms's output - to his art,
to his career (Ein deutsches Requiem propelled him to European notice),
and to his income.  Brahms may have directed much of his choral music
to the then-lucrative amateur market, but he also produced plenty for
crack choirs and without much reasonable hope for financial reward -
again, Ein deutsches Requiem a good example.  Like the Requiem, some of
these works even became popular.

For me, Brahms's great contribution was to transform the concert aria
into a vehicle of meditation.  That's what we have with the Schicksalslied
(song of destiny), Naenie, Gesang der Parzen (song of the fates), and,
most apparent, the Alto Rhapsody.  The Begraebnisgesang (burial song)
and Rinaldo are, to a large extent, sports in his catalogue - one early,
one late.  The early work, Brahms's first major piece for accompanied
chorus, hews closely to conventional choral music of the time, with, of
course, some harmonic swerves the composer has put in the listener's
way, just to keep things interesting.  Rinaldo, a setting of an 1811
text for music by Goethe, is a dramatic scena, perhaps the culmination
of the composer's failed efforts to write an opera.  We do know that he
lost interest in the work before he completed it, and the final chorus
gave him a lot of trouble.  Outside of the Requiem, it's his longest
work for chorus and orchestra, and it enjoyed a successful premiere.
Clara Schumann, however, voiced her doubts as to whether it stood as a
worthy successor to the Requiem.  Posterity has apparently agreed with
her.  It's not terrible, by any means, but it lacks the power of just
about every other piece on the program.  What you realize is that Brahms
is a lyric, rather than a dramatic composer.  He's much more interested
in depicting emotional states than conflict between characters.  Better
than either Begraebnisgesang or Rinaldo would have been the Triumphlied,
"ein deutsches Te Deum," written in the Germanic patriotic fervor following
the Franco-Prussian War.

So many of these works concern death in some way.  Furthermore, Brahms
very rarely gives death the final word.  Indeed, he did some fudging
with Hoelderlin's ending of Schicksalslied so everything "would come
out right." Hoelderlin begins with the calm beauty of the gods and ends
with humanity flushed into the unknown (the image is pretty close to
that of a modern toilet).  But Brahms doesn't leave us with that violence.
Instead, he brings back the music of the Elysian introduction, even more
brightly scored.  Naenie, to a text by Schiller, laments that "even
beauty must die," but Brahms ends with the lines "Even to be an elegy
in the mouth of the beloved is glorious."

The CD has the great advantage of combining a bunch of works in one
place.  The performances are all at least good and, in some cases, as
good as can be got.  For the accompanied pieces, the Sinopoli set on
Deutsche Grammophon rings the bell for me more often than this one and
does include the Triumphlied (though minus the Begraebnisgesang), but
it's also more expensive.  There are, of course, individual performances
of many of the other pieces that outshine either set.  I happen to love
Walter's Sony recording of Schicksalslied and, with Mildred Miller, the
Alto Rhapsody, as well as Boult's Alto Rhapsody with Janet Baker on EMI.
Otto Klemperer and Christa Ludwig, also on EMI, probably stand in many
people's mind (though not mine) as the ne plus ultra.  Stephen Cleobury
and King's College do very well in the op.  29 motets, although I prefer
grown-up trebles in my Brahms.

Simon Preston and the New English Singers, on the other hand, have
never been bettered in this repertoire.  In fact, I credit them with
my breakthrough to Brahms.  Most of Brahms's music literally put me to
sleep.  I'd doze off after the opening strains of any of the symphonies,
for example, and wake up in time for the final big chords.  Not only
didn't I like Brahms, I didn't see why anyone else liked him either.
But I kept listening, sometimes against my will, otherwise by choice.
As a chorister, however, I bonded immediately with the unaccompanied
motets - for me, the greatest of anybody but Bach.  Preston's LP (which
gives you some idea how long ago this was) was urged on me by a friend.
I began listening to the Geistliches Lied (sacred song) which sounded
initially like a weak-water, Mendelssohnian song without words.  All of
the sudden, I realized that I listened to a double canon at the ninth
with a free bass, and, for some reason, like Saul on the road to Damascus,
the scales fell from my eyes.  I was conscious of a new orientation
toward the composer.  Brahms's music very quickly became an inexhaustible
source of pleasure and excitement to me.  The symphonies began to make
sense.  I learned to love the violin concerto and the second piano
concerto.  My musical world literally became new.  I was no longer a
flat-earther.  I can't even tell you at this point specifically why
Brahms kept me at arm's length for so long.  And I owe it all to Simon
Preston and years of chipping away.

The weakest of the motets is the earliest, "Es ist das Heil uns kommen
her" (salvation has come to us).  In fact, it predates the next motet
by about ten years.  Compared to the others, it strikes me as Brahms
making his way in a new form.  The counterpoint, although excellent,
seems to control the composer rather than the other way around.  You
miss a sense of freedom that you get in the others.  "Schaffe in mir,
Gott, ein rein Herz" (create in me, O God, a pure heart) is already miles
ahead in this regard.  I can't name my favorite of the other motets,
because they're all so wonderful, but the clear sentimental favorite is
"O Heiland, reiss die Himmel auf" (O Savior, tear the heavens asunder),
since that was the first one I sang, when I was a high-school young 'un,
and the strong chorale melody that forms its base appealed to the barbarian
in me.  Needless to say, we didn't do it as well as Preston and his
singers.

For my money, Preston alone justifies the cost of the CD.  Very good
performances by Blomstedt, van Nes, Cleobury, and Abbado are just so
much gravy.

Steve Schwartz

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